The Admiral’s power was broken

After a three months’ absence, I found myself in San Francisco again,
without a cent. When my credit was about exhausted, (for I had become
too mean and lazy, now, to work on a morning paper, and there were no
vacancies on the evening journals,) I was created San Francisco
correspondent of the Enterprise, and at the end of five months I was out
of debt, but my interest in my work was gone; for my correspondence being
a daily one, without rest or respite, I got unspeakably tired of it.
I wanted another change. The vagabond instinct was strong upon me.
Fortune favored and I got a new berth and a delightful one. It was to go
down to the Sandwich Islands and write some letters for the Sacramento
Union, an excellent journal and liberal with employees.

We sailed in the propeller Ajax, in the middle of winter. The almanac
called it winter, distinctly enough, but the weather was a compromise
between spring and summer. Six days out of port, it became summer
altogether. We had some thirty passengers; among them a cheerful soul
by the name of Williams, and three sea-worn old whaleship captains going
down to join their vessels. These latter played euchre in the smoking
room day and night, drank astonishing quantities of raw whisky without
being in the least affected by it, and were the happiest people I think
I ever saw. And then there was “the old Admiral–” a retired whaleman.
He was a roaring, terrific combination of wind and lightning and thunder,
and earnest, whole-souled profanity. But nevertheless he was
tender-hearted as a girl. He was a raving, deafening, devastating
typhoon, laying waste the cowering seas but with an unvexed refuge in the
centre where all comers were safe and at rest. Nobody could know the
“Admiral” without liking him; and in a sudden and dire emergency I think
no friend of his would know which to choose–to be cursed by him or
prayed for by a less efficient person.

His Title of “Admiral” was more strictly “official” than any ever worn by
a naval officer before or since, perhaps–for it was the voluntary
offering of a whole nation, and came direct from the people themselves
without any intermediate red tape–the people of the Sandwich Islands.
It was a title that came to him freighted with affection, and honor, and
appreciation of his unpretending merit. And in testimony of the
genuineness of the title it was publicly ordained that an exclusive flag
should be devised for him and used solely to welcome his coming and wave
him God-speed in his going. From that time forth, whenever his ship was
signaled in the offing, or he catted his anchor and stood out to sea,
that ensign streamed from the royal halliards on the parliament house and
the nation lifted their hats to it with spontaneous accord.

Yet he had never fired a gun or fought a battle in his life. When I knew
him on board the Ajax, he was seventy-two years old and had plowed the
salt water sixty-one of them. For sixteen years he had gone in and out
of the harbor of Honolulu in command of a whaleship, and for sixteen more
had been captain of a San Francisco and Sandwich Island passenger packet
and had never had an accident or lost a vessel. The simple natives knew
him for a friend who never failed them, and regarded him as children
regard a father. It was a dangerous thing to oppress them when the
roaring Admiral was around.

Two years before I knew the Admiral, he had retired from the sea on a
competence, and had sworn a colossal nine-jointed oath that he would
“never go within smelling distance of the salt water again as long as he
lived.” And he had conscientiously kept it. That is to say, he
considered he had kept it, and it would have been more than dangerous to
suggest to him, even in the gentlest way, that making eleven long sea
voyages, as a passenger, during the two years that had transpired since
he “retired,” was only keeping the general spirit of it and not the
strict letter.

The Admiral knew only one narrow line of conduct to pursue in any and all
cases where there was a fight, and that was to shoulder his way straight
in without an inquiry as to the rights or the merits of it, and take the
part of the weaker side.–And this was the reason why he was always sure
to be present at the trial of any universally execrated criminal to
oppress and intimidate the jury with a vindictive pantomime of what he
would do to them if he ever caught them out of the box. And this was why
harried cats and outlawed dogs that knew him confidently took sanctuary
under his chair in time of trouble. In the beginning he was the most
frantic and bloodthirsty Union man that drew breath in the shadow of the
Flag; but the instant the Southerners began to go down before the sweep
of the Northern armies, he ran up the Confederate colors and from that
time till the end was a rampant and inexorable secessionist.

He hated intemperance with a more uncompromising animosity than any
individual I have ever met, of either sex; and he was never tired of
storming against it and beseeching friends and strangers alike to be wary
and drink with moderation. And yet if any creature had been guileless
enough to intimate that his absorbing nine gallons of “straight” whiskey
during our voyage was any fraction short of rigid or inflexible
abstemiousness, in that self-same moment the old man would have spun him
to the uttermost parts of the earth in the whirlwind of his wrath. Mind,
I am not saying his whisky ever affected his head or his legs, for it did
not, in even the slightest degree. He was a capacious container, but he
did not hold enough for that. He took a level tumblerful of whisky every
morning before he put his clothes on–“to sweeten his bilgewater,” he
said.–He took another after he got the most of his clothes on, “to
settle his mind and give him his bearings.” He then shaved, and put on a
clean shirt; after which he recited the Lord’s Prayer in a fervent,
thundering bass that shook the ship to her kelson and suspended all
conversation in the main cabin. Then, at this stage, being invariably
“by the head,” or “by the stern,” or “listed to port or starboard,” he
took one more to “put him on an even keel so that he would mind his
hellum and not miss stays and go about, every time he came up in the
wind.”–And now, his state-room door swung open and the sun of his
benignant face beamed redly out upon men and women and children, and he
roared his “Shipmets a’hoy!” in a way that was calculated to wake the
dead and precipitate the final resurrection; and forth he strode, a
picture to look at and a presence to enforce attention. Stalwart and
portly; not a gray hair; broadbrimmed slouch hat; semi-sailor toggery of
blue navy flannel–roomy and ample; a stately expanse of shirt-front and
a liberal amount of black silk neck-cloth tied with a sailor knot; large
chain and imposing seals impending from his fob; awe-inspiring feet, and
“a hand like the hand of Providence,” as his whaling brethren expressed
it; wrist-bands and sleeves pushed back half way to the elbow, out of
respect for the warm weather, and exposing hairy arms, gaudy with red and
blue anchors, ships, and goddesses of liberty tattooed in India ink.
But these details were only secondary matters–his face was the lodestone
that chained the eye. It was a sultry disk, glowing determinedly out
through a weather beaten mask of mahogany, and studded with warts, seamed
with scars, “blazed” all over with unfailing fresh slips of the razor;
and with cheery eyes, under shaggy brows, contemplating the world from
over the back of a gnarled crag of a nose that loomed vast and lonely out
of the undulating immensity that spread away from its foundations.
At his heels frisked the darling of his bachelor estate, his terrier
“Fan,” a creature no larger than a squirrel. The main part of his daily
life was occupied in looking after “Fan,” in a motherly way, and
doctoring her for a hundred ailments which existed only in his

The Admiral seldom read newspapers; and when he did he never believed
anything they said. He read nothing, and believed in nothing, but “The
Old Guard,” a secession periodical published in New York. He carried a
dozen copies of it with him, always, and referred to them for all
required information. If it was not there, he supplied it himself, out
of a bountiful fancy, inventing history, names, dates, and every thing
else necessary to make his point good in an argument. Consequently he
was a formidable antagonist in a dispute. Whenever he swung clear of the
record and began to create history, the enemy was helpless and had to
surrender. Indeed, the enemy could not keep from betraying some little
spark of indignation at his manufactured history–and when it came to
indignation, that was the Admiral’s very “best hold.” He was always
ready for a political argument, and if nobody started one he would do it
himself. With his third retort his temper would begin to rise, and
within five minutes he would be blowing a gale, and within fifteen his
smoking-room audience would be utterly stormed away and the old man left
solitary and alone, banging the table with his fist, kicking the chairs,
and roaring a hurricane of profanity. It got so, after a while, that
whenever the Admiral approached, with politics in his eye, the passengers
would drop out with quiet accord, afraid to meet him; and he would camp
on a deserted field.

But he found his match at last, and before a full company. At one time
or another, everybody had entered the lists against him and been routed,
except the quiet passenger Williams. He had never been able to get an
expression of opinion out of him on politics. But now, just as the
Admiral drew near the door and the company were about to slip out,
Williams said:

“Admiral, are you certain about that circumstance concerning the
clergymen you mentioned the other day?”–referring to a piece of the
Admiral’s manufactured history.

Every one was amazed at the man’s rashness. The idea of deliberately
inviting annihilation was a thing incomprehensible. The retreat came to
a halt; then everybody sat down again wondering, to await the upshot of
it. The Admiral himself was as surprised as any one. He paused in the
door, with his red handkerchief half raised to his sweating face, and
contemplated the daring reptile in the corner.

“Certain of it? Am I certain of it? Do you think I’ve been lying about
it? What do you take me for? Anybody that don’t know that circumstance,
don’t know anything; a child ought to know it. Read up your history!
Read it up—–, and don’t come asking a man if he’s certain about a bit
of ABC stuff that the very southern niggers know all about.”

Here the Admiral’s fires began to wax hot, the atmosphere thickened, the
coming earthquake rumbled, he began to thunder and lighten. Within three
minutes his volcano was in full irruption and he was discharging flames
and ashes of indignation, belching black volumes of foul history aloft,
and vomiting red-hot torrents of profanity from his crater. Meantime
Williams sat silent, and apparently deeply and earnestly interested in
what the old man was saying. By and by, when the lull came, he said in
the most deferential way, and with the gratified air of a man who has had
a mystery cleared up which had been puzzling him uncomfortably:

“Now I understand it. I always thought I knew that piece of history well
enough, but was still afraid to trust it, because there was not that
convincing particularity about it that one likes to have in history; but
when you mentioned every name, the other day, and every date, and every
little circumstance, in their just order and sequence, I said to myself,
this sounds something like–this is history–this is putting it in a
shape that gives a man confidence; and I said to myself afterward, I will
just ask the Admiral if he is perfectly certain about the details, and if
he is I will come out and thank him for clearing this matter up for me.
And that is what I want to do now–for until you set that matter right it
was nothing but just a confusion in my mind, without head or tail to it.”

Nobody ever saw the Admiral look so mollified before, and so pleased.
Nobody had ever received his bogus history as gospel before; its
genuineness had always been called in question either by words or looks;
but here was a man that not only swallowed it all down, but was grateful
for the dose. He was taken a back; he hardly knew what to say; even his
profanity failed him. Now, Williams continued, modestly and earnestly:

“But Admiral, in saying that this was the first stone thrown, and that
this precipitated the war, you have overlooked a circumstance which you
are perfectly familiar with, but which has escaped your memory. Now I
grant you that what you have stated is correct in every detail–to wit:
that on the 16th of October, 1860, two Massachusetts clergymen, named
Waite and Granger, went in disguise to the house of John Moody, in
Rockport, at dead of night, and dragged forth two southern women and
their two little children, and after tarring and feathering them conveyed
them to Boston and burned them alive in the State House square; and I
also grant your proposition that this deed is what led to the secession
of South Carolina on the 20th of December following. Very well.” [Here
the company were pleasantly surprised to hear Williams proceed to come
back at the Admiral with his own invincible weapon–clean, pure,
manufactured history, without a word of truth in it.] “Very well, I say.
But Admiral, why overlook the Willis and Morgan case in South Carolina?
You are too well informed a man not to know all about that circumstance.
Your arguments and your conversations have shown you to be intimately
conversant with every detail of this national quarrel. You develop
matters of history every day that show plainly that you are no smatterer
in it, content to nibble about the surface, but a man who has searched
the depths and possessed yourself of everything that has a bearing upon
the great question. Therefore, let me just recall to your mind that
Willis and Morgan case–though I see by your face that the whole thing is
already passing through your memory at this moment. On the 12th of
August, 1860, two months before the Waite and Granger affair, two South
Carolina clergymen, named John H. Morgan and Winthrop L. Willis, one a
Methodist and the other an Old School Baptist, disguised themselves, and
went at midnight to the house of a planter named Thompson–Archibald F.
Thompson, Vice President under Thomas Jefferson,–and took thence, at
midnight, his widowed aunt, (a Northern woman,) and her adopted child, an
orphan–named Mortimer Highie, afflicted with epilepsy and suffering at
the time from white swelling on one of his legs, and compelled to walk on
crutches in consequence; and the two ministers, in spite of the pleadings
of the victims, dragged them to the bush, tarred and feathered them, and
afterward burned them at the stake in the city of Charleston. You
remember perfectly well what a stir it made; you remember perfectly well
that even the Charleston Courier stigmatized the act as being unpleasant,
of questionable propriety, and scarcely justifiable, and likewise that it
would not be matter of surprise if retaliation ensued. And you remember
also, that this thing was the cause of the Massachusetts outrage. Who,
indeed, were the two Massachusetts ministers? and who were the two
Southern women they burned? I do not need to remind you, Admiral, with
your intimate knowledge of history, that Waite was the nephew of the
woman burned in Charleston; that Granger was her cousin in the second
degree, and that the woman they burned in Boston was the wife of John H.
Morgan, and the still loved but divorced wife of Winthrop L. Willis.
Now, Admiral, it is only fair that you should acknowledge that the first
provocation came from the Southern preachers and that the Northern ones
were justified in retaliating. In your arguments you never yet have
shown the least disposition to withhold a just verdict or be in anywise
unfair, when authoritative history condemned your position, and therefore
I have no hesitation in asking you to take the original blame from the
Massachusetts ministers, in this matter, and transfer it to the South
Carolina clergymen where it justly belongs.”

The Admiral was conquered. This sweet spoken creature who swallowed his
fraudulent history as if it were the bread of life; basked in his furious
blasphemy as if it were generous sunshine; found only calm, even-handed
justice in his rampart partisanship; and flooded him with invented
history so sugarcoated with flattery and deference that there was no
rejecting it, was “too many” for him. He stammered some awkward, profane
sentences about the—–Willis and Morgan business having escaped his
memory, but that he “remembered it now,” and then, under pretence of
giving Fan some medicine for an imaginary cough, drew out of the battle
and went away, a vanquished man. Then cheers and laughter went up, and
Williams, the ship’s benefactor was a hero. The news went about the
vessel, champagne was ordered, and enthusiastic reception instituted in
the smoking room, and everybody flocked thither to shake hands with the
conqueror. The wheelman said afterward, that the Admiral stood up behind
the pilot house and “ripped and cursed all to himself” till he loosened
the smokestack guys and becalmed the mainsail.

The Admiral’s power was broken. After that, if he began argument,
somebody would bring Williams, and the old man would grow weak and begin
to quiet down at once. And as soon as he was done, Williams in his
dulcet, insinuating way, would invent some history (referring for proof,
to the old man’s own excellent memory and to copies of “The Old Guard”
known not to be in his possession) that would turn the tables completely
and leave the Admiral all abroad and helpless. By and by he came to so
dread Williams and his gilded tongue that he would stop talking when he
saw him approach, and finally ceased to mention politics altogether, and
from that time forward there was entire peace and serenity in the ship.